Reflections on mission in the PC (USA) today
Tim Hart-Andersen, Westminster, Minneapolis
NEXT Church Conversation
July 2, 2010
What we have historically called “mission” in the Presbyterian Church is changing. Where these changes will take us is of critical importance to the vitality of the NEXT Church, because mission is basic to what we do. Get mission wrong and we get church wrong. Drift away from mission and we drift away from church. Stop mission and we stop church.
Emil Brunner once observed, “The Church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning. Where there is no mission there is no church.” If we do nothing else as a Christian community, we must at least do two things: love God and love neighbor – that is, worship God and serve God in the world. A community that ceases to do both of those, or does only one of them, will cease to be the church.
When someone asked Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador to define the gospel, he said, simply, “To defend the poor as our Lord did.” One of my colleagues has a t-shirt that puts it even more succinctly. It says: Ignore the poor, go to hell. Matthew 25. We cannot follow Jesus faithfully and ignore the mission imperative of the gospel. Like the prophets of old, Jesus is not interested in empty rituals or sacred liturgies disconnected from the world around us.
In recent years we have spent inordinate effort and resources in trying to renew worship in the church. We have engaged in worship wars. We have consulted experts in technology. We have silenced our pipe organs. We have given up our hymnals and our hymnody. We have tried other traditions. We have experimented with a wide-range of worship styles. We have acted as if worship were the only thing the church needed to be concerned about. If we could only find the right formula for worship, our membership would rebound.
It is time for us to get as creative and focused about mission, time for us to find new ways of joining God’s work in the world, time for us to put holy energy into renewing the mission of the church. The old patterns of mission will not work in the 21st century. The old ways of mission are not the ways of the NEXT Church.
Some thoughts about mission in the NEXT Church:
1. In the NEXT Church we will not define mission as what we do when we give away money, but instead we will think of it as who we are.
2. In the NEXT Church we will not think of governing bodies as the lead mission agencies, but instead we will let mission spring up from the world around us.
3. In the NEXT Church we will not act unilaterally in mission, but instead we will work in new kinds of partnerships.
Now, more detail…
1. How have we traditionally measured the success of mission in the PC(USA)? Typically, by following the money. Fewer dollars flowing up and out of the system meant less mission is “getting done.” We even got into the habit of calling mission “benevolence,” as if mission were merely akin to funding good works. Generosity is a good thing. Munificence shows that we have gospel priorities – but the church is not a community foundation. We are not a grant-making non-profit organization. We are the Church, the body of Christ in the world. If we think of mission simply as funding other people’s projects than we have effectively disembodied the faith, and we might as well shut the church doors and go home. That is not church, that is agency work.
In the NEXT Church we will measure faithfulness in mission not by following the money, but by following the people. Mission happens, first and foremost, where our bodies are. We can no longer do mission from a distance. Mission in the NEXT Church is about who we are, not what we do.
A few years ago our church took a group of about a dozen adults to spend a week with our congregational partner church in Matanzas, Cuba. On these partnership trips we do not go to “do” something or to solve a problem. We do not bring answers to their needs. We go simply to be with them, to worship and sing and pray and eat and dance and visit with them. Solidarity is the aim, not good works.
Each day on this particular trip – as we do on every trip – we spent 60-90 minutes in the morning in a time of Bible study and reflection. On our last day we read the parable of the Good Samaritan. After our time of silent meditation, one of the group members said to us, “Before we left for Cuba I actually thought about this parable and imagined myself and our church group as the Good Samaritan, stopping to help those who needed assistance. Having spent a week with our partners in Cuba, I now hear this story in a different way. We are the one by the side of the road needing help. Our church and those of us in it are spiritually wounded. We need healing. We need help. We need someone to stop and love us and teach us in ways that bring wholeness to us and in ways that deepen our faith. That has happened to us here in Cuba.”
The church must stop thinking of itself as God’s great problem-solvers, as if God needed us to fix things in the world. God does not need us; we need God. Our calling is to find where God is at work in the world and then send our people there to be the Church, which may mean not “doing” much of anything.
2. How have we traditionally engaged in mission in the PC (USA)? Typically, governing bodies have guided us. Our ecclesial system was designed to operate as a corporation, with local franchises taking their lead from headquarters. Our governing bodies became mission agencies. They did the mission; we in the local church supported it with money. They had the expertise, we had the funds. They had strategy; we had the Sunday offering. Our governing bodies had the connections and knowledge and history, so we local types deferred to them in matters of mission. Over time, we became disengaged from mission.
Have you ever wondered why our best elders – those who are “on fire with their faith” – do not want to go to presbytery? Among the several reasons is that that governing body is trying to function as if were still the well-funded mission agency it once was, and as a result today is not getting anything done. It probably cannot conceive of doing business in any other way – and there is no longer any business to do, in the old way.
We may have to destroy the presbytery in order to save it.
In the NEXT Church, mission happens not when and where the governing body says it should (as it once did), but when and where the people of God discover that God is at work in the world. To do mission faithfully will mean increasingly to look to those out of power, those beyond the church, those who have historically been the object of our well-intended efforts – and follow their lead.
In a congregation I once served in the heart of a city we planned to have a Sunday morning adult education series on homelessness. We brought in experts in the field: social service agency executives, social workers, other urban pastors – and, in an experiment, we hired one of the several homeless men off the sidewalk in front of the church to come as a leader to each of the classes. We paid him the same honorarium we paid all the other leaders (only his was in cash, in an envelope, at the end of each session). The man rolled up his cart each Sunday morning, we put it in storage for the hour-long class, and then at the end of the session he would take his cart (all his worldly possessions) and go back to his place on the sidewalk. We learned a lot from him – but most of all, we learned of his humanity. No longer would we ever be able to look at a person on the street and dismiss them as anonymous. After the fourth class session, when we had begun to get to know one another, he asked if he might come to worship. He went that day, and then began to come regularly, even after the class ended. Eventually he got sober, found a sponsor who was an elder on the session, got a job and an apartment, joined the church, and today sings in the choir and is a deacon.
We saw Christ in one who had been nameless and faceless, one of the least of these. He taught us how to be church, how to engage in mission in Christ’s way.
3. How have we traditionally made decisions about mission in the PC (USA)? Typically, autonomous governing bodies – sessions, presbyteries, and GA – have assumed the role of decision-maker, independent of others. We have approached mission unilaterally, as if we were at the center. We are not at the center any longer. We are on the margins, and from the margins we must work together or perish.
In the NEXT Church mission is undertaken in partnership, not alone. The best and most transformational partnerships are cross-cultural and multi-ethnic. Little transformation happens to us if our partners are no different from us – those white Methodists down the street, those nice Episcopalians up the block, those friendly Lutherans around the corner. Those are not partnerships – they are extensions of ourselves.
Pentecost was not merely ecumenical; it was multi-cultural and multi-lingual. The Church was meant to engage the world as it is, not as we would like it to be.
We have to get people out of the pews and into the streets. We have to fling open the doors of our buildings and take some risky steps toward those who are not like us, asking, “What is God up to here, and how can we be a part of it?” Doug Mitchell, one of Westminster’s associate pastors, and I met last week with a Muslim imam in north Minneapolis. We went to the masjid, the mosque, certainly not to convert him, and not even to try to get him to sign-up in some community project we had in mind. We met with him because he wanted us to hear how his mosque is responding to needs in their neighborhood, and then, to wonder together, with him, about how our shared witness for justice and hope could be strengthened by working together.
Nothing changes our people more profoundly than building a genuine relationship with the other – the one who does not speak English because he or she just arrived from a faraway place. Nothing gets a hold of us more dramatically than coming face-to-face with the one who is in prison, the one who cannot walk, the one who has no home, the one who is poor – in other words, those in whom Jesus said he would reside.
Westminster has four global congregational partnerships – one each in Cuba, Brazil, Palestine, and Cameroon. With each of the congregations we have established a mutual partnership. Leaders in each church develop a written, five-year covenant of our relationship, spelling out expectations and hopes for the partnership. The covenants name our desire, fundamentally, for Christian friendship, for solidarity with a community of believers in two very different contexts. The covenants explicitly state that the relationship is not about finances, or about one group meeting the need of the other.
Our visits – both in their context and when they come to stay with us – have transformed our people. We have now had well over 200 of our leaders experience a visit to one of our global partners. They come back with a new perspective on what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Frankly, they are better Christians back home after living in community with the members of one of our global partner congregations. Their involvement in church and attendance at worship generally goes up, their giving increases, and their willingness to be open to new ways of doing and being church back home is greatly enhanced by a stay with a global partner. We do not undertake these visits casually; typically the before-travel prep is extensive, and on the trip we devote a chunk of time each day to study and reflect and pray together. Our people usually find themselves being much more engaged with their own faith, much more open about their own spirituality than they ever were back home.
I think of one retired businessman whom I invited to go to Cuba. He went somewhat reluctantly, especially because he did not see the purpose in the trip if we were not going to build something or do something for the Cubans. The experience transformed him in ways that surprised us all. He has now been on five trips to Cuba, is working hard to master Spanish, and is as excited as ever about his faith.
Jesus lives among us in those whom he describes as the least of these. The NEXT Church will build partnerships with them, will learn from them, will grow with them, will be led by them.
The church has lost its way because it has lost its mission. In the NEXT Church, mission will not simply be a line item in the budget, nor will it be something someone else does; it will be who we are, as followers of Jesus, and it will happen wherever we are, if we are attentive to God’s activity in the world, and it will change us – even as, by the grace of God, it might change the world.